Day 37: Ulaanbaatar , Growing pains

A two page magazine spread shows a sketches of modern infrastructure overlaid on a barren steppe.
Progress at all costs.

Rising in time for breakfast is easier today.

It’s a short walk from my four bed dormitory to the common room, where I’m served omelette and jam, on toast. This is accompanied by consecutive cups of tea and an interesting magazine, which discusses Mongol life, old and new.

A full page spread titled Beauty of the Steppe describes the beauty of a young women riding horseback.

… she would not only stir the hearts of many youths but would attract the gaze of a learned city dweller.

D. Natsagdorj, from Beauty of the Steppe

A few pages on, a three page article presents a number of leading statements-cum-questions to D. Buyantogtokh, Governor of the Khanbogd soum (district). Khanbogd soum is home to the six billion dollar Oyu Tolgoi (“Turquoise Hill”) gold and copper mine.

Buyantogtokh explains the inequality created in the administrative reshuffle of the 1920s. Some districts had lost access to geographical resources and herders could no longer freely move their stock in response to natural events. As a result, settlements were abandoned and people moved to population centres which were better resourced.

He says it’s important for people to have belief, patience, endurance, knowledge and skills. The belief that things will get better, the patience and endurance to play a 20 year mineral exploration game and the knowledge and skills to make the most of their find.

He’s happy to get into bed with well-resourced mining companies like Ivanhoe Mines / Rio Tinto. Mineral mining is a game changer and the right of his generation. Patriotism is a romantic notion which ignores the need to develop modern infrastructure and grow.

Gobi men should not be condemned forever to tend camels and ignore modern technology. Everyone should love their native land, but how can a poor and hungry person be a patriot?

D. Buyantogtokh, Governor of Khanbogd soum

Out on the streets, old and new seem to merge harmoniously.

Peeking into a building in the rough alleyways, I see a room full of headset-wearing gamer kids on computers.

On the paved footpath, a chalk drawing portrays smiling rural women in full traditional dress.

On the walls, graffiti both immortalises Genghis Khan and advertises Facebook pages, while on billboards, a new way of life is already here.

There are nods to the roles of Russia and China in gaining independence and infrastructure. New high-rises grow out of old archways, but people hold on to their beliefs.

It’s obvious that an international audience now frequents this place. I eat ramen and dumplings at a Japanese restaurant, but in doing so I feel dirty. It feels like a chain store, a fabrication of culture. I’m just going through the motions here. Consuming for the sake of it. What?

On to more important matters, the Mongolian visa that I obtained in New Zealand is only good for one month.

It’s possible to extend this for another month, but only from within Mongolia. The idea was to give myself some leeway in case I encountered a dust storm or mid-Gobi breakdown. However it’s essential now that I have a work contract to complete.

Today’s job is to locate the bus that runs to the immigration office. I locate the bus terminal, but find that the route maps are all in Mongolian. I guess tourists don’t take the bus!

On the way home I stop off at a bookshop in search of a phrase book.

Such a thing would be redundant in this international city, but I’ll need to make myself understood when I’m out on the rural steppes.

Although I don’t quite find what I’m looking for, it’s interesting how the bookshop mirrors my day.

There are separate sections for Shamanism and Religion, phrase books for miners, American idioms and graphic sex calendars for Mongols.

It’s tempting to visit a place like Mongolia and then go home and tell people how it is. In fact, that’s the prime motivation behind travel blogs like this one.

However the reality is that change is constant and in developing countries like Mongolia it moves even faster. Perhaps the pace of change is not all that noticeable to those who live here, but to generations of tourists progress is far more jarring. We who literally take snapshots of a place at points in time, cannot expect to overlay those snapshots with those of our descendants and see them line up.

Travel blogs are transient snapshots at best, skewed to the privileged perspective of travellers who don’t really understand what they are seeing. With this in mind, do keep reading this blog, but please take my photos and commentary with a large grain of salt. For nothing lasts forever, not even opinion.

Whatever Mongolia is in the future, it will not be what it is today.